With the season in the books, most people are starting to take a look at the 2016 season. While the schedule is yet to be released, the Jets' opponents are already known. If you're curious about the whole list, it can be viewed here (as well as several other locations.) I've decided to take an in depth look at each team that the Jets will face in 2016, starting with the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. I strategically made this decision because Arizona has a very particular trait that no other team the Jets will face can offer: their name starts with the letter A and I'm doing this alphabetically. Also, Bruce Arians is awesome.
The Cardinals were one of the NFL's powerhouses in 2015 for a variety of reasons. On defense, the Cardinals boast one of the best (if not the best) secondaries in football. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Matheiu are in the conversation for the best in the NFL at their respective positions. The secondary also sports quality support players like Jefferson, Powers and Bethel, as well as a rising linebacker/safety in Deone Bucannon. The defense as a whole ranked 5th in yardage and 7th in points allowed. From a purely statistical standpoint, the Cardinals defense was pretty comparable to the Jets defense in 2015. The offense was another story. The Cardinals ranked 1st in the NFL in yardage and 2nd in the NFL and seemed nearly unstoppable until the Panthers dismantled them in the NFC Championship game. While I was never as high on the Cardinals as some pundits, the Cardinals were obviously one of the most dangerous teams on both sides of the ball in 2015.
I've already mentioned that the Cardinals have one of the best secondaries in football. What I neglected to mention was that the rest of the defense is solid. While there aren't as many big name players on Arizona as a defense like Seattle's, players like Calais Campbell somehow still fly under the radar despite making Pro Bowls. A combination of Campbell, Rucker, and Freeney gave the Cardinals a pass rush to complement a pass defense. On offense, the Cardinals are led by SN Comeback Player of the Year and MVP finalist Carson Palmer. Bolstered by an above average offensive line (with studs on the left side) and a deadly receiver group (including a rejuvenated Larry Fitzgerald), the Cardinals offense has almost no weaknesses. Carson Palmer's NFC meltdown aside, the entirety of the offense functioned magnificently throughout the season. The only weaknesses one could argue for would be tight end and running back, though tight ends are really not utilized much in Arians' offense.
Very few of the Cardinals' key players are likely to change teams in 2016, with only a couple of starters unsigned. The main free agents will be Tony Jefferson, Jerraud Powers, Chris Johnson and Bobby Massie, with the remaining players being either spot players or second stringers. While Jefferson wasn't an elite safety in 2015, he was well above average in an elite Cardinals secondary. Losing him could be costly, but with so much talent at safety, losing Jefferson might not hurt the Cardinals in the same way it would hurt other teams. Though CJ2K put up some good numbers, I doubt David Johnson and Andre Ellington are anything close to resembling a downgrade. Bobby Massie was the weakest point of the offensive line and is pretty easily replaced. Powers is a quality starter who will likely be overpaid by a team with more cap space than the Cardinals. Many thought Dwight Freeney's career was well past its expiration date, but his trademark spin move helped him earn 8 sacks in just 9 games as a spot pass rusher. He'll be celebrating his 36th birthday today, however, and it's hard to know how much he has left in the tank. All in all, the Cardinals should be keeping all of their essential pieces for another year.
Cap Space and Holes
According to Sportrac's estimates, the Cardinals should have approximately $18.4M in cap space (assuming a $154M cap in 2016.) This would place them at 22nd in the league in cap room for 2016, one spot ahead of the Jets. There are a few opportunities to create more space (including extending Calais Campbell or signing Michael Floyd to a long term deal), but overall, the Cardinals will likely have to make improvements through the draft. The return of several injured players will also help, but the Cardinals will need more production from young players. Another year for David Johnson and Marcus Golden should help, but Arizona will probably expect 2015 first round pick D.J. Humphries to step up and take the RT position left behind by soon-to-be-free-agent Bobby Massie. The Cardinals could also use an upgrade at several positions, including tight end, center, guard, and pass rusher. Considering the Cardinals have given out two huge contracts to offensive line free agents and invested two first round picks to bolster the offensive line over the last two years, it's hard to imagine they'll take another one in the first round. In all likelihood, they'll try to balance the defense by finding a real edge rusher in the draft.
What to expect in 2016
The Cardinals were one of the best all around teams in football last year. With very few losses to their coaching staff and roster heading into 2016, they'll likely be one of the best teams in 2016 as well. If anything, they could even be better. How do they stack up against the Jets? Frankly, they're a better team. On defense, the teams were nearly equal last year. On special teams, the Cardinals were definitely better. On offense, it wasn't even comparable. Combine that with the fact that the Jets will have some serious cap constraints with our starting QB, DE, RB, NT, and RB2 all entering free agency (sure, several of them will be returning...but several will not.) Now the Jets have definitely beaten stronger teams before, but on paper, this one definitely favors the Cardinals.